The nation’s food bank system, created to provide emergency food assistance, fills a chronic need. Still, it may be perpetuating obesity among those facing hunger, concludes a new report by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The jump in demand for food caused by the pandemic’s economic fallout amplifies the challenges facing those who serve the hungry. Directors of food banks hesitate to request that donors confine their tax-deductible contributions to healthy foods for fear of alienating them, Kristen Cooksey Stowers said in the report published in PLOS ONE. Stowers, assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s Allied Health Services Department, concludes there are many opportunities to promote health equity among food pantry clients, particularly those from historically marginalized groups.
Beyond the gleaming office towers overlooking I-95 in Stamford and the pleasure boats that frequent the city’s marinas, thousands of city residents are struggling with hunger, a situation worsened by the pandemic. Severe food needs in Stamford, which has the most COVID-19 cases in Connecticut, reflect the state and national food emergency wrought by record unemployment. Consistent with the national experience, Latino and black residents, who comprise about 40% of the city’s population, are disproportionately contracting COVID-19 and losing low-wage work. Latinos comprise 26% (33,000) of Stamford’s population, blacks 14% (17,000). The Brookings Institution has reported that more than one in five households nationally were food insecure by the end of April.
Wanda Perez considers the price and nutritional value of everything she puts in her shopping cart, as the New Haven woman relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy groceries and is trying to eat healthy to manage multiple chronic illnesses. Just over 364,000 people receive SNAP benefits in the state, a number that has decreased about 4.7% in the past year. “I try to stay on top of everything that’s going on,” said Perez, a member of Witness To Hunger, which organizes SNAP users to speak about food policy and poverty. Perez lives on just over $700 in disability assistance a month, plus $192 in SNAP. Though her SNAP benefits are safe for now, proposed federal rule changes could push other Connecticut users off SNAP.
People struggling with hunger suffer from a disproportionate number of chronic illnesses and often rely on food pantries for their groceries. So, pantries are now being urged to undergo a sea change and abandon their traditional emphasis on calories and nonperishable items in favor of more nutritional food. In Connecticut, 440,000 people are food insecure, which means they have limited or uncertain access to sufficient nutritious food, according to 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, the latest available. They comprise 12.2 percent of the state’s population.People with food insecurity are 25 percent more likely to have heart disease and diabetes, and 50 percent more likely to have kidney disease, cites Feeding America, a national food bank network. “These issues can be prevented or managed better with a proper diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains,” said Michelle Lapine McCabe, director of the Center for Food Equity and Economic Development, based in Bridgeport.
Like all pediatricians, Dr. Lori Smith keep tabs on many aspects of her patients’ health, but until recently the Westport-based doctor didn’t always consider whether the children she sees might be going hungry. “It wasn’t something that was necessarily on our radar,” she said. While her practice treats some lower-income patients from nearby Norwalk and Bridgeport, most of the children Smith and her colleagues see come from relatively affluent families. But Smith, who has been a pediatrician for more than 16 years, and her colleagues recently began screening all patients—regardless of their household income—for food insecurity, part of a new effort doctors and advocates hope will help prevent childhood hunger. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in October recommended that pediatricians screen all patients for hunger at well visits.